My Best Fiend (1999)

My Best Fiend (1999)

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Kinski in a rare moment of candour.
Kinski in a rare moment of candour.

Twitter Plot Summary: Werner Herzog’s documentary charting his professional and personal relationship with volatile actor Klaus Kinski.

Five Point Summary:

1. Kinski goes off on one. Not for the last time.
2. Herzog with a moustache.
3. Women clearly adored him.
4. Natives threaten to kill Kinski for Herzog.
5. Kinski and a butterfly.

My Best Fiend was released eight years after Kinski’s death, and represents a personal journey for Werner Herzog as he retraces his working relationship with Kinski from those early meetings in a shared house in Germany, through each of their five film collaborations and the behind the scenes angst and turmoil that followed Kinski wherever he went.

After a brief introduction featuring archive footage of Kinski declaring himself to be the modern Jesus to an incredulous audience, Herzog steps in front of the camera to provide a tour of the home at which a thirteen year old Werner Herzog first met Kinski. Herzog explains those early years to the current owners of the house, describing in detail the type of insane acts that Kinski was prone to demonstrate many years before they established their working relationship, including locking himself in the shared bathroom for 48 hours straight, during which time he managed to smash almost everything in there to pieces.

Just in case you weren’t clear on the point, Kinski was an incredibly disturbed individual, prone to random fits of fury and flying off the handle at a moment’s notice. But at the same time he also had a certain level of warmth to him which, as Herzog himself admits, “could turn into rage of unimaginable proportions.” He was also a phenomenal actor who, having no formal training in that field, was capable of demonstrating an incredible range of emotions to the point where his intensity becomes integral to his performance.

The focus is primarily on their work on Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, although we do get to briefly see elements of their other collaborations Nosferatu, Woyzeck and Cobra Verde. Being allowed to see behind the scenes and experience Kinski’s ravings as close to first hand as we’ll get is an experience, however those moments are all too brief. Kinski and Herzog had a tumultuous relationship, however it was clearly one that both of them needed. Away from the limelight Herzog states that they often would meet and even collaborated on some of the more offensive passages that Kinski wrote about Herzog in his autobiography.

"And it was over there that Kinski did horrific things to a chicken."
“And it was over there that Kinski did horrific things to a chicken.”

Despite his fiery nature, it’s not all negativity towards Kinski. Eva Mattes, who played the wife of Kinski’s Woyzeck in the film of the same name, reveals that he was a friendly face on the production, and that there was a mutual respect between them. Similarly Claudia Cardinale, who played his wife in Fitzcarraldo, has nothing but praise for him. There’s an argument to be made about him being predisposed to be charming and pleasant to attractive women, but that’s left for the audience to decide.

Naturally because Kinski had long since died at the time the documentary was made, there’s nothing presented directly from his perspective, but then given his propensity for exaggeration and downright lying, it’s unlikely that we’d ever get to see the real Kinski in a public forum. The closest we perhaps see to this is the occasional piece of candid footage of Kinski posing gently for the camera with a butterfly in hand, or the all too brief moments where the bond between the two men is abundantly clear. In many ways Kinski is projected in a similar vein to Christian Bale, a consummate professional prone to outbursts if something isn’t quite right. Whilst My Best Fiend isn’t covering substantially new ground and presents quite a one-sided opinion on Kinski, as a passion project for Herzog it’s understandable why he felt it necessary to make the film in the first instance, and it never approaches the realms of being a postmortem character assassination.

Score: 4/5

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